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Hermaphrodite Birds!

August 3, 2010

Yes, they exist! And they’re called  half-spiders. And they’re truly fascinating. You see, I’m reading yet another history of ornithology: The Wisdom of Birds by Tim Birkhead.

I’m enjoying it! Especially the illustrations — they’re fantastic! As you can tell, I judge (and buy!) my ornithology books by the quality of their pictures. Maybe I’m nostalgic for children’s books, who knows, or, alternatively, maybe I’m just completely shallow. Either way, Tim Birkhead sure did choose some fabulous illustrations and I highly recommend his opus.

You might be curious about the circumstances under which I acquired this hardcover 433 page gem. (I’m always curious to know when and where people buy their books; call it my voyeur instinct.) I recently attended the First Ever Toronto Kettlebell Championship (it goes by a different name, but you get the idea), and as a reward for my great interest and tolerance for a mildly barbaric sport (I’m an almost-birdwatcher, NOT an almost-athlete!), my husband agreed to explore the Junction — a nifty Toronto neighborhood tucked away in the west end, just north of High Park — with me. And guess what we found? Superlative coffee and a bookstore called Book Exchange. I like to think it was karma that the minute I walked in to Book Exchange, I came face to face with The Wisdom of Birds. I flipped through it, found the glorious pictures, and realized we were meant for each other. It’s totally possible to get that tingly first-crush kind of feeling with a book. In fact, it happens all the time.

I walked out of the bookstore completely dreamy-eyed. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I didn’t become a Kettlebell wonder-whiz or anything. I was nothing but a spectator (I’m writing a piece on the whole Kettlebell experience, so stay tuned) and saw nothing but total strangeness & supreme muscles that day. It was nice to find a bookstore and feel a little more in my element, so to speak.

Anyhow, back to Half-Spiders. Have you ever seen a bird that had male plumage on one side and female on the other? Don’t feel bad if you haven’t. I haven’t either. But apparently, they’re referred to as “half-spiders”, which is a fancy, G-rated way of saying hermaphrodites. Of course, renaissance natural scientists had a field day with hermaphrodites, and my pal Ulisse Aldrovandi (who can go wrong with Ulysses for a first name?) included them in his book of monsters (1642). In fact, a cockerel was burned at the stake in Basel 1474, since it appears that the animal lay eggs. What emerged from a cockerel’s egg was disastrous — a cockatrice (part bird, part serpent) or basilisk — and had a murderous glance. Burning at the stake was huge in those days, and the anything considered remotely sexually deviant was immediately pounced upon by the Church and labeled a crime. Anything religiously subversive or biologically unexplainable called for burning at the stake. Poor cockerel!

I’ll leave you with Aldrovandi’s rendition of a COCKATRICE (Gallus monstrificus…) from the early 1600s. (Picture from here):

The only animal who could fight off a cockatrice was, apparently, the weasel. Moral of the day: Beware the cockerel that lays eggs!

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2010 7:29 pm

    Wow that cockatrice is really ugly. Even uglier than a heron or a gull. Or is that something I shouldn’t be saying on a bird-lover’s blog?

    • August 5, 2010 11:00 am

      Yeah, it’s a pretty stunning specimen, isn’t it? Half-bird, half-serpent makes a pretty freaky creature indeed!

  2. August 5, 2010 12:25 am

    This bird watching adventure is getting weirder and weirder, though still less strange than kettlebells.

  3. August 8, 2010 7:47 pm

    Birders are fascinated by gynandromorphs–not sure why!

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